Copenhagen's Christiania — Just Another Brick in the Wall?

By Rick Steves
Decorated House, Christiania, Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen's alternative community, Christiania, sports colorful murals. (photo: Cameron Hewitt)

I was strolling through the commotion of downtown Copenhagen, past chain restaurants dressed up to look old, and under towering hotels that seem to be part of a different international chain each year. Then, as if from another age, a man pedals his wife on a Christiania Bike — two wheels pushing a big utilitarian rounded bucket. You'd call the couple "granola" in the USA — they look as out of place here in Copenhagen as an Amish couple in Manhattan.

Later that same day, I paused to watch a parade of ragtag soldiers-against-conformity dressed in black venture through the modern bustle of downtown Copenhagen. They walked sadly behind a WWII vintage truck blasting Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in The Wall." I never listened to the words until now. They're fighting a rising tide of conformity. They want to raise their children to be not cogs but free spirits. On their banner — painted onto an old sheet — was a slogan you see in their Christiania squatter community: "Lev livet kunstnerisk! Kun døde fisk flyder med strømmen." ("Live life artistically! Only dead fish follow the current.") They flew the Christiania flag — three yellow dots on an orange background. They say the dots are from the o's in "Love Love Love."

In 1971, the original 700 Christianians established squatters' rights in an abandoned military barracks, just a 10-minute walk from the Danish parliament building. A generation later, this "free city" still stands — an ultra-human mishmash of idealists, hippies, potheads, non-materialists, and happy children (600 adults, 200 kids, 200 cats, 200 dogs, 17 horses, and 2 parrots). There are even a handful of Willie Nelson–type seniors among the 180 remaining here from the original takeover. And an amazing thing has happened: The place has become the third-most-visited sight among tourists in Copenhagen. Move over, Little Mermaid.

Christiania, which sprawls just behind the spiral tower of Our Savior's Church in the trendy district of Christianshavn, welcomes visitors (even offering tours daily in summer). They've become a major part of the economy. Tourists react in very different ways to the place. Some see dogs, dirt, and dazed people. Others see a haven of peace, freedom, and no taboos. Locals will remind judgmental Americans (whose country incarcerates more than a quarter of the world's prison inmates) that a society must make the choice: Allow for alternative lifestyles...or build more prisons.

Entering the community, you'll see a sign announcing that you are leaving the EU (European Union). The main drag is nicknamed "Pusher Street" for the marijuana-selling stands that lined it before the recent police crackdown. Now the police drop in 10 times a day, and cafés post signs warning "No pot smoking." (Hard drugs have always been strictly forbidden.)

As you walk down Pusher Street, you'll see Nemoland, a kind of food circus. A huge warehouse called the Green Hall (Den Grønne Hal) does triple-duty as a recycling center (where people get most of their building material), a craft center for kids, and an evening concert hall. Nearby is a barracks housing Spiseloppen, a bohemian chic loft which attracts smartly dressed professional types from all over town for its near gourmet cuisine. Eventually Pusher Street takes you to the ramparts overlooking a lake lined with cozy if ramshackle cottages.

While biking through the community, it occurred to me that, except for the bottled beer being sold, there was not a hint of any corporate entity in the entire free city. Everything was handmade. Nothing was packaged. And, of course, that will not stand.

The current conservative government is feeling the pressure from developers to "normalize" Christiania. There is a take-it-or-leave-it "final solution" on the table for leaders of the commune to deal with. The verdict is that land (which no one wanted 35 years ago but is now in huge demand) needs to be developed. Much of it will be opened to market forces and 1,600 outsiders will be allowed to move in. This will drastically change Europe's last and only surviving attempt at a socialist utopia dating from flower power days.

I recently received an email from some traveling readers. They said: "We're not prudes, but Christiania was creepy. Don't take kids here or go after dark." A free city is not pretty, I agree. But watching parents raise their children with Christiania values, I came to believe more strongly than ever in this social experiment. Giving alternative-type people a place to be alternative is a kind of alternative beauty that deserves a place.